As many are aware, COVID-19 has not had a positive impact on the justice system. In accordance with the Notice to the Profession dated March 15, 2020, regular operations of the Superior Court of Justice were suspended, given the pandemic and only certain urgent and emergency matters were to be heard by the Superior Court of Justice.
Although since then a further update was provided wherein it was made clear that additional matters will be scheduled for a remote hearing by telephone or video conference or heard in writing, to the extent that your particular matter does not fall within the narrow exceptions currently in effect, the Court will consider whether it is urgent before scheduling a hearing.
Justice Myers commented on the question of whether a matter is urgent in a recent Endorsement and expressed his concern about the ability of the Court to offer services during this unprecedented time.
In the particular case at hand, the Applicant, sent application materials to the Court raising concerns about the upcoming closing of a pending real estate transaction and the possibility of a residential eviction. Justice Myers noted that this was done, knowing of the Chief Justice’s Order dated March 19, 2020, suspending residential evictions in Ontario.
Nevertheless, Justice Myers, via a handwritten Endorsement dated April 2, 2020, scheduled this proposed matter for a case conference, by finding that the urgency standard in the Notice to the Profession dated March 15, 2020 was met. Following the delivery of the Endorsement to counsel for the parties, the Court received a letter from the Respondent, containing submissions as to why the matter was not urgent and should not be scheduled for a hearing.
Justice Myers noted that the Court is now routinely receiving submissions on the issue of “urgency” both before and after the Court scheduled a matter for a hearing. Justice Myers further re-iterated the following:
- The Notice to the Profession is a not a statute passed by the Legislature of Ontario;
- Litigants and lawyers alike are asked “to recognize the exceptional times and to try and cooperate to avoid the need for Court proceedings where possible”;
- Guidelines are provided for those who need to access the Court while they are not in full operation; and
- Importantly, none of this affects the Court’s jurisdiction or the applicable rules of law such that scheduling is an administrative function of the Court.
In light of the above, Justice Myers made it clear that the scheduling of an “urgent” matter is not a legal determination and therefore there is no need or call for detailed submissions. His Honour further re-iterated that not only is it not required, but that it is not helpful and that it must stop.
In analyzing Justice Myers’ Endorsement, and given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, it is important that counsel cooperate with one another and the Court in effectively moving matters forward with minimized impact on the parties and the justice system. We are all, after all, in this together.
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As Ontario begins to witness a glimmer of relief from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one cannot help but notice how the outbreak has forced the hand of many industries towards modernization, and law is no exception. Our firm has blogged extensively over the past two months on the multitude of changes to estate planning practices, litigation, and the practice of law in the province, more generally, the implementation of which is directly attributable to the new business reality. Wills may be executed in identical counterparts, rather than as a single a document, by way of audiovisual communication. Motions and other court hearings are being conducted virtually, and materials to be filed in respect of those hearings can be filed with the court registrar electronically.
Most recently, Bill 190, the COVID-19 Response and Reforms to Modernize Ontario Act, 2020, received royal assent on May 12, 2020 and implements modest, but impactful, changes to numerous statutes. These changes continue the trend of modernizing the practice of law to match the business realities of the circumstances by, for example, specifically authorizing or validating the electronic signature of certain documents, providing mechanisms for the filing of such documents, if need be, by electronic means, or generally allowing for certain practice components to proceed in a virtual capacity. The legislative goals of Bill 190 fit with the province’s broader mandate, in the words of the attorney general, to have “modernize[d] the justice system 25 years in 25 days.”
The Bill also includes a formal amendment to the Commissioners for Taking Affidavits Act to authorize a commissioner of oaths to administer an oath or declaration, generally in the form of an affidavit, without being in the physical presence of the deponent, provided the commissioner can “satisfy himself or herself of the genuineness of the signature.” In other words, this amendment authorizes a commissioner to administer an oath or commission an affidavit by audiovisual means provided the signature, and the act of signing, are made visible to the commissioner.
This amendment reflects an interpretive directive issued by the Law Society of Ontario in March. The prior version of this statute required both commissioner and deponent to be in the presence of one another for the oath to be validly administered. Though physical presence was not a strict requirement under the prior version, it was considered to be an element of best practice. In light of the recent restrictions in having a commissioner and a deponent meet together for the purposes of commissioning an oath, the Law Society issued this directive to ensure that the requirement could be satisfied in the absence of physical presence, thus authorizing the commissioning of oaths to proceed virtually. The amendments to this act set out in Bill 190 simply serve as a more permanent statutory codification of the directive issued by the Law Society.
Please feel free to review our other blogs dealing with the practice of law in a post COVID-19 reality:
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Today I learned about the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (“NICE”) and their Talk 2 NICE program.
NICE is an international network of researchers, practitioners and students dedicated to improving the care of older adults. Members come from a broad spectrum of disciplines and professions.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, NICE is providing free outreach and counselling to older adults and persons with disabilities. Callers are able to speak to social workers or social work students. Talk 2 NICE can be reached toll free at 1 (844) 529-7292. Or, a time for a call from Talk 2 NICE can be scheduled on their webpage. The program can also be accessed over the internet by clicking on a link. Referrals for friends or family members are also accepted.
Callers have a choice of scheduling either a 15 minute or 30 minute “Friendly Check-In”.
The call is designed to help those socially isolated and lonely due to the current crisis. The service is also offered to caregivers. The trained volunteers will provide uplifting phone calls that respond flexibly to the needs of the caller, and will offer information about other available resource
Another excellent resource provided by NICE is a pamphlet entitled “To Stay Or To Go?: Moving Family from Institutional Care to your Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic”. The brochure discusses a number of considerations to be taken into account when considering whether to remove a family member from a Long-Term Care Facility.
Mental health should be top of mind during these unique times. This is particularly so for the elderly. The service provided by NICE is an excellent resource. Pass on this information to anyone who may benefit from such a call.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. Call your mother (or anyone else you know who may benefit from an isolation-breaking telephone call).
We have previously written about the Estate Arbitration and Litigation Management (“EALM”) initiative, which has been spearheaded in an effort to keep estate litigation matters moving forward during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our previous blogs on the EALM initiative can be found here and here.
In its Notice to the Profession dated May 5, 2020, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice announced that it will not resume in-person hearings until July 6, 2020, at the earliest. The notice further states that the scope of matters being heard by courts virtually will be expanded in the near future, but the particulars regarding such an expansion have not yet been released.
While access to the courts remains limited, EALM is available as a means of obtaining assistance in the determination of procedural and/or interim (and certain substantive) matters that are not necessarily urgent in nature and not currently eligible for a virtual court hearing. The matters set out in an EALM agreement can be arbitrated by senior estates practitioners in a timely and cost-efficient manner. EALM arbitrations can take place via teleconference or video conference, depending on the preferences of the parties and the arbitrator.
As previously indicated, EALM is not intended to in any way circumvent the role of the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (the “PGT”) or the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (the “OCL”) where the estate matter involves unprotected charitable interests or the rights of persons under legal disability. Since our last blog post regarding EALM was posted, the initiative has received the support of the PGT and the OCL and our precedent EALM agreement has been further updated to recognize the potential role that the PGT and/or the OCL may have in EALM process. Best EALM practices include ensuring that the PGT and/or the OCL are provided with the opportunity to participate, and further include the following:
- Where any substantive issue to be submitted to arbitration affects the rights of persons under legal disability, or an unprotected charitable interest, the parties must provide notice of their intention to enter into an EALM agreement to the PGT and/or the OCL;
- The PGT and/or the OCL should be served at the early stages of a matter, particularly when the issues will have a significant effect upon the interests that they represent;
- Where the PGT and/or the OCL are participating in a proceeding, their consent to proceed to EALM is required;
- Where it is necessary for a court to appoint the PGT or the OCL as litigation guardian, each office may consider requests to engage in the EALM process after they have been appointed as litigation guardian (rather than prior to their formal appointment); and
- An arbitrator’s decision to resolve substantive issues involving the rights of persons under legal disability will be considered to be a final settlement, which requires court approval under Rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
A revised copy of our precedent EALM agreement, which has been updated in consultation with the PGT and the OCL in consideration of the comments set out above, can be found here. An updated list of senior estates practitioners who are prepared to assist as EALM arbitrators is available here. I again thank all of those who have demonstrated an interest in assisting other members of the Estates Bar as arbitrators.
EALM is a cost-effective measure to move matters forward and provides the parties to litigation with more control than the traditional court process. Once the courts resume full operations, we can only anticipate that they will be at full capacity and hearing dates will be in high demand. In light of this, we are hopeful that EALM will continue to assist parties to estate litigation and their counsel as a suitable and efficient alternative to in-court hearings.
If you are interested in introducing EALM into your own practice, or if you are interested in being added to our roster of EALM arbitrators, please contact me at email@example.com.
Thank you for reading and stay safe.
Video conferencing has been around for about forty years. It has been used in criminal court bail hearings and on applications to the Supreme Court of Canada for more than thirty years in some parts of the country. There are many good reasons to now expand the use of video and other technology in the law of wills and estates. The technology “Genie” is now out of the legislative bottle it has been kept in for too long, and it is not likely to be put back in when this pandemic fully ends.
The changes made in the last month to how a will can be validly signed in Ontario have been made far more quickly than anyone expected. The substance of these changes has been dealt with in other Hull and Hull blogs. The Emergency Management and Civil Protection legislation in Ontario, and the Orders made pursuant to that legislation beginning on Tuesday March 17, 2020 have effectively amended past practice to such a degree that the usual caution of the legal profession has been surrendered. Wills can now be signed and witnessed over the internet. Counterpart signed wills are now allowed. Affidavits can be commissioned by video conference now. These and other changes have been made and implemented quickly, with effect to the core of basic principles. The legal profession in Ontario has not seen changes like this in the past one hundred years!
The changes are brought on by the circumstances of the current pandemic emergency and are necessary. It has been impressive to watch these changes being made so quickly. Immense credit is due to those involved. Led by the Attorney General of Ontario, Doug Downey, and with the Deputy Minister, lawyers at the Ministry, members of the Estate Bar, and others, they have all truly done monumental work. On Monday May 4, 2020 a notice was posted on the Ontario Court of Justice website that included the following statement that the Court would be, “…working closely with its justice partners, including the Ministry of the Attorney General, to adopt technology that will increase participants’ ability to access the Court’s services using remote means, such as by the electronic filing of court material, remote scheduling processes, and remote hearings.”
It is interesting to ask however, while changes were happening incrementally in other areas of the law over many years, why was there no progress in the area of execution of wills? It is important to also ask what further changes should be made at this time. For many lawyers the recent storm of events and the subsequent changes are anxiety making. Nevertheless, this is the time further permanent changes should be considered. What should be of interest now is how technology can be used to benefit all going forward. Before the timing of the window for change closes this should become an important discussion among estate lawyers.
Thank you for reading.
These blog posts on the subject may also be of interest:
Many of us are in the midst of spring cleaning, or, this year, the deeper, extended COVID cleaning.
As part of cleaning process, consider cleaning up your estate plan. Organize the documents and information relevant to your estate plan for your own reference, and for the ultimate ease and convenience of your estate trustees.
There are many websites that offer tips on organizing and simplifying your estate documents. There are apps available to help organize and store your information.
As a starting point, BDO has produced a comprehensive list, “My Financial Story and Estate Organizer”, that can be completed by the testator and left in a readily accessible place: perhaps with the testator’s Estate Trustees.
I have seen too many estates where a person passes away leaving a state of chaos. Often, it is not known whether the person left a Will, or who the estate trustee is. This presents immediate problems when trying to address the steps necessary upon death, such as making or implementing burial decisions. In addition, after burial, the estate trustee is often scrambling to find out what assets the deceased had, and where they are.
This game of cat and mouse can be readily avoided by listing what and where your assets are. Not making such a list is simply vexatious.
Remember Gerald Cotten? He was the founder of QuadrigaCX who died in 2018. He was the only one who knew the password to access the $137m or more of holdings of the company’s clients. Leaving an organized estate plan (or even a sticky note with a password scrawled on it) would have eased a lot of tension. See Natalia Angelini’s blog on this, here.
The issues that arise upon one’s death are difficult in the best of cases. Make them easier to address by organizing your affairs so as to assist your estate trustees. Take advantage of the time available now to clean up your estate plan.
Have a great weekend. Stay safe.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, pursuant to the Notice to the Profession, the courts are presently restricted to hearing mainly urgent matters. For civil and commercial matters, this includes “urgent and time-sensitive motions and applications in civil and commercial list matters, where immediate and significant financial repercussions may result if there is no judicial hearing.” There is also a broad ability for the court to hear any other matter that it deems necessary and appropriate to be heard on an urgent basis, but these matters will be strictly limited.
In a recent decision, Weidenfeld v Parikh-Shah, 2020 ONSC 2401, the court considered two urgent motions brought by the plaintiff and the defendants, respectively. The defendants sought to have monies that had been paid into court several years ago, paid out from court. The plaintiff sought, among other things, an order prohibiting the payment out of the monies. The decision did not provide details of the background of the litigation between the parties.
The court stated that the parties’ first step is to establish that their respective motions are, in fact, urgent. The court provided some guidance as to what is needed in this regard:
“The obligation is on the moving party to provide cogent, particular and specific evidence to show the court that the relief requested is urgent. Speculative, supposition or theoretical evidence is not good enough. The present environment and limited use of judicial resources mandate that the urgency must be real and immediate.”
Unfortunately for the parties in this case, the court found that their affidavit evidence did not provide cogent evidence to satisfy the court that the relief sought was urgent. The reason for which the defendants had brought the motion seeking to have money paid out of court was not set out in the decision.
The court did consider the category of urgent matters where “immediate and significant financial repercussions may result”, and specifically mentioned (a) matters that may put a person in financial jeopardy; (b) the funding of a business, business venture or construction project, failing which the financial viability of the project is in jeopardy; and (c) the necessity of a person to have resources to pay expenses or an order for the health and safety of a person; as issues that would meet the test of “immediate and significant financial repercussions”.
In the current circumstances, we are continually adjusting to new ways of doing things. This includes bringing court proceedings. Based on the Weidenfeld v Parikh-Shah decision, it is clear that parties will need to provide clear and sufficient evidence to satisfy the court as to the urgency of the matter in order for the court to hear the proceeding while court operations are restricted.
Thanks for reading,
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Representatives of the Courts of Ontario, the Ministry of the Attorney General and various stakeholder representatives are meeting regularly in order to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and the courts’ response to it.
At present, the Ministry and the courts are working towards a further expansion of the courts. To date, since the declaration of the emergency, the Superior Court of Justice has heard about 1,000 matters, being motions, conferences and pre-trials. However, it is hoped that the types of matters to be heard and the number of matters can be expanded in the near future.
Committees are currently considering the expansion of court services. Priorities being discussed include:
- Identifying a Document Sharing Platform to be used by judges, counsel and parties;
- Identifying a Video Conferencing Platform to be used by judges, counsel and parties; and
- Determining a protocol to be used by court staff for supporting virtual hearings.
It is expected that the selection of a Document Sharing Platform will be made by next week, with the other items to be in place shortly thereafter. While there is no set time frame, once the systems are put in place, there will be an announcement with respect to the expansion of court services.
It would appear that once these systems are put in place, there will be no turning back. Virtual hearings, at least to a certain extent, will be the new norm. Previous attempts to modernize the court by allowing virtual attendances, through a service called CourtCall, did not gain much traction. However, I suspect that there is now a greater appetite for and comfort with virtual hearings. Further, it is likely that the hearings will be supported by better document management and document filing facilities; something that was lacking under past experiments.
And stay safe.
Earlier this week, Ian Hull and I spoke at Osgoode Professional Development’s program on Powers of Attorney and Guardianship: Non-Contentious and Contentious Matters.
During the program, in addition to discussing new execution options for wills and powers of attorney, the panel shared its thoughts on a number of considerations relevant to the preparation of powers of attorney during the pandemic, including some of the following:
- It may now be impractical to permit for decisions regarding personal care or property to be made only jointly by two or more attorneys acting together where the attorneys selected are not members of the same household.
- In light of ongoing travel restrictions, it may be increasingly important that the selected attorney(s) for property and/or personal care are local.
- It may be more difficult to access multiple medical professionals (or a specified medical professional) to confirm incapacity during a healthcare crisis. The provision regarding the circumstances in which a power of attorney is to become effective should accommodate potentially limited access to a specified physician or more medical professionals than necessary.
- It may be more important than ever to ensure that the original power of attorney documents (and/or copies) are physically accessible to the named attorney(s).
- The current circumstances present a unique opportunity to assist clients in updating outdated plans and ensuring that powers of attorney are put into place for those who do not have them already.
Even outside of the context of a pandemic, considering practical issues like those set out above when creating or updating an incapacity plan is a worthwhile exercise and may expose potential problems with the plan before it is finalized.
Thank you for reading.
Other blog entries that may be of interest:
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way in which we live our lives, with strict limitations on social gatherings of any kind, including funerals. However, deaths obviously continue to occur during this period, with death rates among certain population groups on the rise, and delaying memorials and funerals until after the current health crisis has ended, whenever that may ultimately be, may be impractical and/or prolong the grieving process.
A review of recent news articles suggests that several trends are beginning to emerge in respect of funerals as large in-person gatherings continue to be prohibited throughout Canada and much of the world:
- Some funerals are being held using video-conferencing software such as Zoom, with enhanced ability for family members living abroad to participate, with some funeral services continuing in-person, with very limited attendance (typically limited to five individuals, including the officiant) and distance of no less than six feet between attendees who are not members of the same household;
- Communities such as Flatrock, Newfoundland, have seen cars line up along the side of a street to blink their lights as the hearse passes by on its way to the cemetery as a way to show their respect without potential exposure to the virus;
- In Quebec, because of concerns over transmission, embalming in respect of the remains of a victim of COVID-19 is prohibited, there are restrictions as to the timing for visitations and interment, and funeral-related service providers are relying upon protective equipment (such as N95 masks and gloves) to stay safe while handing remains of COVID-19 victims;
- Funerals in Calgary and elsewhere are reportedly “going digital”, with funeral home directors citing the increased role of online photo gathering and live-streamed funeral services;
- Online visitations are gaining popularity (according to funeral workers in Windsor), while some Jewish families are sitting shiva on Zoom.
It will be interesting to see whether any of these trends survive the lessening of restrictions on social gatherings.
Thank you for reading.
Other blog entries that may be of interest: